The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Although the book’s focus is on the title character, the other major characters in Alice Adams are also developed and rounded. As individual as his main characters are, Tarkington uses them all to develop his ideas about the dishonesty of a social system based upon appearances and material wealth. Through his main characters, Tarkington includes all social classes, from the lowest to the highest.
At first, Alice Adams strikes the reader as merely an appealing young woman whose main concerns are the related issues of the social life of her peers and the finding of a suitable, financially sound beau. Quickly, however, Tarkington introduces the idea that will govern his novel: the search for identity. After lying to Arthur, Alice stares at herself in her mirror and asks the question, “Who in the world are you?” The book becomes the story of her quest for identity in a society in which identity is largely a construct and extension of material wealth.
Alice’s father, Virgil Adams, enjoys a naturally ethical character. His loyalty to his employer is absolute until Mrs. Adams finally breaks down his objections under the force of larger obligations to his family and its fortune. Virgil works in the “old hole,” and his name suggests Dante Alighieri’s Virgil, who serves as a guide to hell. The allusion refers both to the family’s inexorable downward slide and to Virgil’s failure or sin in ethics and judgment. Only after his fall do the family members—and the readers—realize that Virgil had been correct in his early belief that Mr. Lamb had valued him...
(The entire section is 651 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Alice Adams, a dreamer whose family is not rich enough to send her to college. She tries to attract attention by affected mannerisms. Disappointed in every ambition, she finally stops daydreaming and, reluctantly, enrolls in Frincke’s Business College.
Virgil Adams, her father, an employee of the Lamb Wholesale Drug Company and part discoverer of the formula for a special glue. The co-discoverer has died. The failure of Virgil’s project to manufacture the glue causes him to have a stroke.
Mrs. Adams, Alice’s socially ambitious mother, who nags her husband to make more money but ends up taking in boarders.
Walter Adams, their son, who has stolen three hundred dollars from his employer. He is more interested in gambling with waiters than in dancing with his sister at Mildred’s party.
Mildred Palmer, Alice’s best friend.
Frank Dowling, a fat, unpopular boy who is the only one attentive to Alice at the dance.
Arthur Russell, a distant relative of the Palmers who is momentarily interested in Alice, then finds her repulsive.
Mr. Lamb, who builds his own glue factory and destroys Virgil Adams’ prospects.
Charley Lohr, who brings the Adamses news that the absconding Walter has left town.